Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Essay on "The Children's Hour"
Lillian Hellman repeatedly said that despite controversial theme and storyline of “The Children’s Hour” it was more about “the power of a lie.” (“Lillian Hellman”, 2008) It is about the capacity of a lie to destroy innocent lives. (“Lillian Hellman: Modern American Women Writers”, 1991, p. 211). How can the society defend itself from a child who lies? How can the society defend itself against an evil masquerading as the truth? This was the dilemma in the play where the life of two unsuspecting teachers was ruined because of a lie of a child.
It was difficult not to believe the accusation of child especially so that the stories of her teachers having sex on bed in the same room where they sleep were shockingly detailed and vivid. Either the child was a very good liar or she was telling the truth. The presumption was in favor the latter. In the end, Hellman was successful in her message that evil which masquerades as the truth can defeat its unsuspecting victims. No person has a defense against the evil especially when the evil hides under the clock of righteousness.
A. Scottsboro Boys Case
Lies were also the primary reason for the accusations of assault and rape filed against a group of black boys, known as the Scottsboro boys, which happened in the 1930s. The whole basis for the prosecution against them and their conviction was a lie. The Civil War had ended and slavery had been abolished several decades before “The Children’s Hour” was written. There was effort on the part of the United States Congress to grant equal rights by abolishing laws that prohibited African Americans from voting. It was the expectation of the members of the African-American community that there will be equality between the Whites and the Blacks. Yet, discrimination continued with the enactment of Jim Crow laws in the South. This was the law which legalized the denial of equal services to the African American. The Supreme Court in 1896 recognized the validity of the Jim Crow Laws in its decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), where it said that the provision of separate facilities for the White and the Blacks does not constitute a violation of the constitution.
It was against this background that a group of black youths were arrested in Paint Rock,
. On Alabama March 25, 1931, more than 20 young whites and blacks rode the Southern Raildroad heading to . Some of these youths were merely wandering from one place to another while some wanted to find out whether there was a job opportunity in another town or city. One of the white males happened to step on the hand of a black male. Because both individuals had companions, a stone-throwing fight soon erupted between their groups. Subsequently, the black youths succeeded in forcing the white youths out of the train. The whites who were forced out of the train went to the stationmaster and reported that they had been assaulted by a gang of blacks. The report was communicated to a station in Paint Rock, Memphis . Subsequently, when the train stopped in Paint Rock, Alabama , every black youth in the train was rounded up. Nine black youths were eventually arrested which were soon called the Scottsboro boys. Charges of rape were also filed against the black youths based on the allegation of two women who were Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. Newspapers immediately reported this event describing it as a revolting crime which further aggravated the whites. Alabama
In a matter of days, a grand jury indicted the Scottsboro Boys. The prosecution agreed that the trial will be done in groups of two or three so as not to constitute reversible error. The defense attorney, however, was remiss in its obligation to defend the right of the defendants. They willingly agreed for the defendants to be tried together. They also failed to conduct a thorough cross-examination on the alleged rape victims despite the inconsistency in their testimony. The doctors who examined the alleged rape victims were not likewise examined. After a series of quick trials, all the black youths were found guilty and eight out of nine were sentenced to death.
The American Communist Party thru the International Labor Defense shocked by the speedy trials took up the case to defend the right of the defendants. An appeal was filed with the Alabama Supreme Court and the execution of the defendants was stayed. On appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, the conviction of all except for one of the convictions and death sentences were sustained. The case was once again appealed to the United States Supreme Court which overturned the conviction and declared that defendants’ right under the Fourteenth Amendment had been denied by
B. William Roughead’s version of Drumsheugh case
The play was written at the time William Roughead released his version of the Drumsheugh case. Lillian Hellman acknowledged that she was inspired in writing this play by an actual law case that was published in the book of William Roughead. In this book, Roughead discussed the 19th Century scandal in
( Edinburgh ) where a pupil accused her two teachers of having a lesbian affair. According to the case, Miss Marianne Woods and Miss Jane Pirie were good friends. They opened a boarding school at the north-east corner of the Scotland in 1809. Immediately, they were able to attract the city’s most influential families which sent their daughters to their school. One of the students the school attracted was Jane Cumming, the granddaughter of Lady Helen Cumming Gordon. Apparently, Jane Cumming told her grandmother a secret about her two teachers. Because the teachers share the same bed and that the teachers and the students share the same room, she claimed to have witnessed her two teachers engaged in an inordinate affection. Subsequently, Lady Helen Cumming Gordon sent letters to her friends informing them about what her granddaughter had witnessed. Soon, Woods and Pirie’s students noticed that their students were leaving the school one by one as the parents of their students were outraged by what they have heard. Because they found out that Lady Helen was responsible for spreading the rumors, Woods and Pirie filed a suit against her and sought to recover the amount of £10,000. However due to the protracted litigation which lasted for years, they were only able to recover £1,000 after all the legal fees were deducted which left them financially ruined. Drumsheugh Gardens
C. The Great Depression, Homosexuality and Lesbianism
“The Children’s Hour” was also written during the worst years of the Great Depression. During this era, there was a rapid decline in the production and sale of goods, sudden rise in unemployment, continued closure of banks and unprecedented increase in unemployment rates. The damage the Great Depression brought affected every person of every social class. The Stock Market Crash in October 1929 was considered as the primary reason for the Great Depression. While it is true that in October 1929 the stock market crashed and wiped out 40% of the paper values of the common stock, the collapse of the stock market and the Great Depression were just the results of what already appeared as serious flaws in the
economy which started during the 1920s. United States
Homosexuality and lesbianism were at their peak during this period (James Polchin, 2004). Perhaps as a form of diversion or amusement, the people frequented theaters and cabarets which showed stories about gays and lesbians. There were also several
Hollywood films and novels that discussed stories bout the third sex. Likewise, performances showing performers in drag were famous sources of amusement for the American Population.
During the 1930s, there were a number of plays that brought to the forefront the issue of lesbian relationship which was the main storyline of The Children’s Hour. From 1920s to the 1930s, writers explored the attraction between females in a number of plays. Among these plays were The Captive (1926), Winter Bound (1928), and Girls in Uniform (1933) (Mary Titus, 1991, p. 215). In effect, these plays sought to revisit and reevaluate the society’s lack of acceptance of lesbian relationships. While homosexuality and lesbianism were accepted as a form of amusement, lesbian relationship was still a taboo and considered as threats to social stability.
The issue of lesbianism was addressed in this play as it discussed about the society’s aversion towards lesbian relationship. Towards the end of the story, Martha Dobie had revealed to Karen Wright her feelings towards her. She admitted that she had always been attracted to her friend and that this attraction is beyond friendship.
D. Double Standard of Morality against Women
It is also at this period of time when women movement had started to gain successes in their effort to put a stop to the double standard of morality. It was written at the time when women were questioning the restrictions and prohibitions imposed upon them by the society. It bears stressing that until the early part of the 20th Century, it was socially acceptable to have a double standard of morality. There was one set of standard applicable for men and another set of standard which was applicable only to women. Most of the time, the double standard was always in favor of men and against the women. Under this same standard, it was socially acceptable for men to cheat on their wife while it is an abomination for women to cheat on their husband. Legally, men who shot their wife after seeing his wife in scandalous circumstance with her paramour can be cleared from any criminal liability while the same is not applicable for women who attempt to kill their husband when caught in the presence of a woman.
Moreover, until the 1920s women were denied their right of suffrage. It was not that the women did not want to participate in voting. But despite their insistence to vote, they were consistently denied participation in voting stating that voting was entrusted by the constitution to men. One of the justifications for this denial is that the United States Constitution did not grant women the right to vote. The Fourteenth Amendment also did not confer the right to vote to women. Neither did the United States Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment make all citizens voters. This was the opinion of the Supreme Court in the case of Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1875) where the it declared that “the Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon any one, and that the constitutions and laws of the several States which commit that important trust to men alone are not necessarily void.”
Despite the losses of the women’s suffrage movement in the Supreme Court and in the Congress, they did not lose hope. They fought for the recognition and argued that they have the right to vote just as the men. The feminist movement argued that if the
proclaims itself to be a nation which upholds equality among all persons then there is no reason for the women to be denied the right to vote. Since there is no substantial distinction between men and women there is no reason for the women to be denied the equal protection of the law. Moreover, it is inconsistent with the principles of a democracy for the right to vote to be denied to certain segments of the population. By definition, democracy is the rule of the majority. Every person, men or women, is part of democracy and so men and women should therefore be allowed to vote. United States
In 1867, the efforts of the women’s movement bore fruit as state-by-state reform started in the same year in
with a referendum. While the referendum was defeated, victories were obtained in Kansas and Wyoming which was considered as the first victories for the women suffrage movement. Utah
With the ratification, however, of the Nineteenth Amendment on
August 18, 1920, things started to change for women’s suffrage movement. The Nineteenth Amendment explicitly provides that “The right of citizens of the to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” With the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the other restrictions on voting were also finally abolished. United States
“The Children’s Hour” is a mirror of the social and political conditions that were happening during the 1930s. It is a reflection of the attitudes, values and culture of the American people at the time. What makes this play different, however, is that its message is still relevant. The theme about slander, deception, and lies and their effects still find their application in the contemporary society where every reader can relate to.
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